By Duncan Miriri and Richard Lough
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenya said it was determined to complete the count on Friday in a tight presidential race that has put Uhuru Kenyatta ahead of his main rival Prime Minister Raila Odinga and in with a chance of outright victory.
Kenyatta, deputy prime minister and son of Kenya's founding president, has led since results started trickling in after polls closed on Monday. But he has swung above and below the more than 50 percent-mark needed to avoid a second round runoff.
If he wins, it would pose a dilemma for Kenya's big Western donors because he is due to go on trial at The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity linked to the violent aftermath of the last election in 2007.
Results from strongholds loyal to Odinga have closed some of the gap, but the outcome is still unclear with almost a fifth of constituencies still to report. Odinga could yet secure a runoff, provisionally set for April.
Technical problems slowed down the count, which has been questioned by both sides but considered broadly credible so far by international observers. Kenyans have had to wait four days already and the result is likely to go down to the wire.
"We are dedicated and determined that this process must end today," James Oswago, chief executive of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, told a news conference.
The poll is seen as a critical test for Kenya, East Africa's largest economy, after its reputation as a stable democracy was damaged by the bloodshed that followed the 2007 election. Much will rest on whether the final result is accepted, and whether any challenges take place in the courts or on the streets.
By 9.15 a.m. ET on Friday, with 10,312,347 total votes tallied, Kenyatta had 5,159,344 votes or 50.03 percent, to Odinga's 4,516,660 or 43.80 percent, according to a display by the electoral commission. That was based on votes reported from 239 of 291 constituencies.
The Kenyatta and Odinga camps have both raised concerns about the process, so legal battles could delay any run-off, heightening tensions in the divided nation. But this time, both sides have promised to turn to legal channels and keep the peace.
International observers have said the vote and count have been transparent so far, and the electoral commission has promised a credible vote. Yet Kenyans are still in the dark about the outcome.
The United States and other Western nations, big donors that view Kenya as vital in the regional battle with militant Islam, have already indicated that a victory by Kenyatta would complicate diplomatic relations.
Kenyatta, son of former president Jomo Kenyatta, and his running mate, William Ruto, face trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on charges of unleashing death squads after the 2007 election. Both men deny the charges and have said they plan to clear their names.
At this stage of the count, turnout is running at 72 percent of eligible voters, roughly the level election officials had suggested it would reach, but there is still no clear picture of how many more votes have yet to be tallied.
Reflecting how voting tends to run along ethnic lines rather than ideology, constituencies in tribal strongholds of the leading hopefuls often report results that show more than 90 percent or more of votes going to one candidate. That means the remaining constituencies to report could have a big impact.
Kenyatta, 51, comes from the Kikuyu tribe, Kenya's biggest ethnic community accounting for about a fifth of Kenya's 40 million people, and Odinga, 68, is a Luo. Neither can rely solely on their own tribal supporters to win and both have running mates from other tribes to beef up their support.
Odinga's camp raised the strongest challenge to the process on Thursday, calling for counting to be stopped saying it lacked integrity and some results were "doctored."
In Odinga's heartland of Kisumu city in western Kenya, residents gathered in restaurants, bus stations and shopping centers to follow election proceedings on television, anxious to see if their man could take the vote to a second round.
"We are hoping to go for a runoff," said Joel Otieno, 42, businessman without giving reasons. "I believe Raila stands a better chance in the runoff."
Analysts said a run-off would also be a close call as it would prompt a reshuffling of alliances.
Chris Mandumandu, a senior official in Odinga's coalition, said the group was considering a legal petition to challenge the count, reflecting confidence in recent reforms to the judiciary that have made it more independent.
When Odinga lost in 2007, he said he did not pursue a legal route because the judiciary could not be trusted. Resulting tensions spilled over into bloodshed.
Many Kenyans say this vote has been far more transparent. One international observer told Reuters: "I have seen nothing to indicate that the election is not credible."
The Kenyan shilling has swayed against the dollar, gaining on reassurances of a smooth counting process and buckling on concerns that delays in announcing a winner would prompt rivals to challenge the election outcome. Analysts said a run-off would unnerve markets by prolonging the uncertainty.
Kenyatta's Jubilee coalition has complained about delays in the count and challenged the commission over its decision to include rejected votes in calculating the final tally.
Rejected votes are for now running at more than 90,000 and could help tip the balance in favor of an outright win for Kenyatta if they are excluded from the final calculations.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and George Obulutsa in Nairobi and Hezron Ochiel in Kisumu; writing by James Macharia and Edmund Blair; editing by Philippa Fletcher)